Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The big man at the bar, the sheriff of Wilsonville, Lucien Dalpe, kept fondling his empty glass, kept looking in the mirror behind the bar in the Wolfhead Saloon, the entrance door in plain view, its bat wings moving to a slight breeze pushing from the west, from the mountains also throwing shadows onto town. Nervousness he seemed to exhibit to close observers, but some of them really knew better; if any man was prepared for excitement, murderous intent, a shot in the back, it was Dalpe, long time on a tough job, a survivor from the outset. It was said his eyes measured feelings as well as movements in his concerns, like an omnipresent character at work. His hat sat lightly on his head, as did one hand on the bar top, the other at his belt; a man always ready at his occupation.
When the thin, gaunt gent came through the doorway, slick as a shadow and reedy, the sheriff knew the scarecrow-like one was looking for him, the newcomer's thin hand already lounging near his holster, the coals of his eyes hot with hate, desperation in slow motion. With one swoop, the sheriff slid his glass quickly and noisily down the bar; it smashed into two other glasses, a few men scattered suddenly with that obvious alarm, and at the doorway the gaunt cowpoke, caught off guard, drew his pistol a half second too late, as the sheriff shot him in the head just as the threatening weapon cleared leather.
A dozen evening drinkers at the bar, in two low-tone and guarded discussions, though hands and words were alive in equal annunciation, froze in place. A full silence descended upon the room, the echo of the single shot lost in the corners, as the dead man hit the floor with little blood for evidence. Evening had served notice it was on hand near Wilsonville with darkness, dread, murderous intentions, and someone someplace having issued orders concerning mortality ... death's domination promising to take hold sooner than later, and perhaps more on this day, as the patrons stared at the fallen body.
The bartender, as usual for business, pointed to two brawny customers and said, "Take that damned back-shooter down to Smitty who ain't had a funeral in a month. The sheriff'll pay for it."
Dalpe, who had been forewarned of this murderous errand, was ready for more. Fore-armed, being a deadly accurate shooter to begin with, he had cemented connections into nearby ranches and all commercial establishments. But had early found most of his useful information was to come from those working women of the town, the ones who kept company with as many ranch hands and trail drovers as possible. Women, he believed, carried more messages and more news than any daily or weekly cattle-town newspaper or the window placards found on newspaper poster boards on outside walls. Wilsonville was no different than all other towns in the territory, walls plastered with the latest news on usually bare walls of town buildings facing the usual single main road through the center of such towns ... but more inside stories, truer stories, were inside the walls of rooms of short-term rentals. Those were his gold mines of information, fact and fiction making the rounds. A further extension of this wealth was the ability of women to separate the fact and fiction or raise the issues of doubt or concern ... they were, in his mind, magicians at such delivery, peeling them clean like spuds before the boil.
It was simple with him; canvas the women who worked much of the day and evening, buy them a drink, hear their woes and knows, find out what was rotten or about to be rotten in Wilsonville and the local ranches, trail lines, freight riders, one and all. All of it was ammunition, armor for his day, artillery of the first rank. His father used to say, "A deaf ear does not have much to say for itself."
The incident above happened hours earlier, then night happened along the trail and came right into Wilsonville yanking darkness with it, lights flickering their evening temperaments. Talk, we find out shortly, has a way of moving according to subject and predication.
Closing time of the saloon on certain days was 12:00 PM, arranged by the saloon owner, Tom Tuckerby, Sheriff, Lucien Dodge Dalpe, and the owner of any herd settled down a mile from town. At this moment the herd owner was Harry Crumley. Crumley had a slim guard on the cattle with most of his men getting their last drinks at the Wolfhead Saloon ... supposedly for the long ride to Sedalia and the pens of the KATY Line (Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroad.) It was 1866, the trail rough, the problems heavy but surmountable ... with a healthy, rugged, true-to-the-core bunch of cowboys who were, to a man, good riders, good ropers, good shooters, and hungry, thirsty, and "hornery," as one old puncher had said at the outset, "anytime we get close to a livable place on the trail."
But heaven itself rarely visits the prairie full of longhorns on the move, cowboys pushing them towards a railhead and the successive faster moves to dinner plates in Chicago, New York, Boston, the formats changed, the state of matter, the abattoirs and packagers in the process, and the coal-wood fed engines streaking cross country, bound to put rich and rare steaks on Eastern dinner plates, the culmination of Texas providence and drover fortitude. 'One big man at the bar said, "That's Slug Cantry on the floor, dead Slug Cantry. Used to ride with me. The Devil could hire him any day of the week if it got him off his horse. Worse cowpoke ever. I don't know the last time he worked a drive, roped or branded a dogie, broke a horse. I'd swear the nearest he ever got to the law was that door there and you, Sheriff. Ain't ever been to jail I know of."
When Sheriff Dalpe questioned several patrons of the Wolfhead, and the owner and bartender, he promised to let the big man off on the spot if he'd tell him what he thought was behind the hunt.
"I don't know any reason, Sheriff, but I heard Slug was tight with a bunch hanging back in the hills waitin' for easy goods to come along. A whole bunch of losers just like Slug lyin' there, dead as he'll ever be and damned good cause for it."
Others in the room were listening with deep interest. When one man, a dark and whiskered cowpoke, slipped out the door stealthy as a mountain cat, it was evident that he was carrying news to an unknown destination. He had been, of course, the subject of girl-talk during the evening. Dalpe slipped out the side door of the saloon, mounted his horse and rode on the backside of all the buildings on the main street until he caught sight of the hastening rider heading out of town on the eastern road. Owls called from barns and trees, a coyote named his terms, and tethered horses announced their nervousness. Night, mostly holding things to itself, did not bother to hide all its secrets.
Dalpe assumed he knew where the messenger was headed. Talk, as ever, had been cheap ... a few drinks among the girls, a soft mouth telling hard facts that it was Tyler Trasker he wanted to make sure of, yank him again unto the arm of the law, an ex-prisoner of the state system, a quiet and successful robber, no deaths at his hand, but a few years of new education had been dropped into his lap behind the bars. There are many available ways of making a living (getting money) that do not involve gunplay, or purportedly so. He often joked within himself, "I am now so armed with one of those ways."
Glycerin uses and awesome possibilities he learned in prison from another prisoner and glycerin had become his new toy; he loved the awed games he'd brought to mind. But there were several characters he didn't want on his trail, knowing much about the whole roster of accomplished and successful sheriffs still alive and duty-bound in the general area. And that roster of lawmen included Lucien Dalpe, Sheriff of Wilsonville, the next target of his toy.
Lucien Dalpe, of course, had been in serious binds with some of the scurviest robbers and killers of the land and was still breathing, in his own place ... but expected he'd sooner or later be a target for a shot of glycerin; he could feel it coming if he did little to stop it.
That thought kept him alert, and now on the road he was sure would lead him to the new munitions man on the wrong side of the law.
Ahead of him, as he tuned his hearing senses, and all other senses at command, he heard the beat of hoofs, and some of his concentration grabbed onto those hoof beats. The image of a big horse came to him and with it the shadow of the horse and rider leaving town, which he had seen for not more than a full second. He knew he was calculating some element of recognition he had not reached as yet. It was then that he picked up a second beat of hoofs from behind him on the dark trail. He sped up his gait to get closer to the man in front of him, heard him clearer, and shifted down into a wadi and hid beside a bushy growth, where he dismounted, held his hat over the mouth of his horse ... and waited.
It was not long, that wait.
It happened as he imagined it to happen; the man behind him sped up, the man ahead, the one who snuck out of town, drew off the trail, but was outlined, still mounted, by a break in heavy clouds ...and appeared as though he was the sheriff.
When the moon broke through in a slight crescent, Dalpe saw both men in their outlines, the one ahead draw his gun, the one behind get off his horse, grab his rifle, shoot off one very accurate shot, and the first man crumpled in his saddle and fell to the ground.
The wounded man cried out, "Hell, I'm hit. I'm hit. Why'd you shoot me, Sheriff. I was only going to talk to my boss." He let loose a string of curses.
The rifleman, approaching him, said, "Ringer, I thought you was him. I thought you was the sheriff, I don't know where he got to. I was just doing what you and the boss planned if he caught up to you when you got too close to the hideout. Hell, Ringer, I didn't mean to shoot you. Now McNerly will come after me for shooting you. Ringer, I didn't mean it!"
The plea in his voice was identifiable and Dalpe knew that Ringer, the plant in town, had been killed by the man who followed him, the sheriff, when he headed out of town. Now he knew the boss's name for sure and could figure out why and what, and probably how the next strike at him would be made with glycerin, and a whole big bang of it. It was an open deal of the cards.
Slowly, silently, aware of the shock of the killer, who now faced both sides of the situation, Dalpe had him subdued and manacled and lead him off to town to wait the next attempt on his own life by the munitions man, McNerly.
The sheriff swore he'd be ready for what was coming. McNerly, as was his nature, always wanted his attempts to be known ahead of time in some way; part of his make-up it was, the derring-do that he operated with, part of taking advantage differently than all the other outlaws, to find glory in his successes as though he was born for them, planned them, carried them off, talked openly about "what this whole thing looks like to me," so offhandedly no one person suspected him ... except the sheriff, cagey as all get-out on his own.
In town there'd be more scrambling, but he'd notice, and keep track of, those who moved slyly out of town to report the jailing of one gang member. News and situation developments had to be ever moving from town to McNerly's hideout, secreted someplace in the mountain range and known only to gang members and, perhaps, some confidants, whose identity was also kept secret. But most people had an itch to share secrets, especially if they contained a reward of some kind.
Such willingness he also found with women in town; some might keep a secret with payment, some would part with the last word heard in the night, sharing being as good as caring, good Scotch better than warm beer, the next lover a possible husband on the edge.
Bethany Hale was such a woman, groomed, lovely, a bit tired of her customers and always on the lookout for a husband, a ranch house, a log cabin, a place of her own. To Dalpe she had revealed not the location of McNerly's hideout, which she didn't know, but had heard from one of her customers that a last look at a specially marked rock in the Turkadon Pass would lead a lost soul to paradise, as it was phrased to her: "McNerly believes in some kind of heaven for people forced to kill for self-preservation, but No Indians allowed." She laughed heartily at that statement, knowing there was a good bit of Indian blood in her own veins that only a few Indians knew about, and no white men like McNerly whom Indians pitied almost as much as hated for his way of life. There was an advantage that she'd use in due time. Of that she was positive.
Bethany was the only woman that Dalpe had dealings with, on the second floor of the saloon, and often it was a question and answer period as he grilled her on recent loose tongues that had come her way. Some of it was useful, most of it not worth a peso, as disparities, dislikes, inborn hatreds made themselves known to the unknown Indian, company for a few hours of a night. With Dalpe this new night, she occasionally spoke Lakota Sioux at times, saying, "Tóhaŋni waŋžíla iyápi iyóhi šni yeló," (One language is never enough) ... and snickered, "When you're hiding your skin."
"What secret is loose tonight?" he said, holding her hand as though he'd leave her abruptly if the secret was important enough.
"I'm always sorry to drive you away," she whispered in the same language, looking around, nodding over her shoulder at the next room with a door between them, her usual caution about "visitors beyond." Dalpe was fully aware that she didn't trust one soul besides him. He knew from early in the game he was her favorite and it improved the relationship to the current and distinctive advantage.
Bethany pointed at the foot of the door between the rooms, where a shadow moved, as if revealing a figure leaning close to listen to their conversation. Without any warning or silent hand signals, he said in a normal voice, "I know you like to handle that weapon of mine, Bethany, but if you were to accidentally squeeze the trigger, the bullet would go right through the door into the next room."
The shadow moved away from the foot of the door in a hurry, and she held her hand over her mouth to hold back a laugh.
They whispered a bit... and the shadow came back, and he said, "Don't take anything for real that I say. Just say 'Okay' when I point at you." Repositioning himself on the edge of the bed, he added, "I'm going out there before dawn, and not to that funny mark on the rock in Turkedon Pass, but back aways where there's a trail through rough rock falls in that other canyon and a big cave I've known about since I was a kid. I'll go in that way and no one will ever see me."
He motioned her for a response, and she hugged him as part of the sport and said, "Please be careful in that cave. There might be snakes or some dead critters come alive in there when they smell humans." She insisted on kissing him and wanted the thought to be complete.
He laughed with her and kissed her back and said, "I have my own stash in there of odd weapons, enough to fight the ghosts and enemies of any man or gang of men. They'll never fool me or catch me off guard in there, for if they enter that cave they're sure as shooting dead before they get out of there. The ghosts of dead men live in there, the ones shot and killed and never buried. I've buried every man I've ever killed. They know me, these ghosts, and they know others who don't bury the dead. They wait on them, kill them, leave them above ground. Soon enough they get to hankering and join the fold, become part of them, the lost souls.."
"You're kidding me," she countered. "Is that why they wouldn't kill you, too?" The smile on her face was wide as the river, and she invited him into her arms, adding, "Oh, my darling, please be careful out there. What time are you leaving? When will you leave me? Must you leave me? Can't you just stay here with me and let them awful men be what they are. You've done enough around here. You could raise the dead to help you, I'm convinced of that and none of them know you're smart enough to do that."
She made it sound so good, so real, so provocative, that he held her tightly and said, "Oh, I'll be going out there just before dawn, when nobody will see me, and I'll sneak up on them like the rattlers they are. They won't hear a sound from me, and I'll have the draw on them, especially that boss of theirs, that McNerly." Then he whispered softly into her ear, "When this is all over, Bethany, we're going west of here a long way. We'll be going to a piece of land I've owned for a dozen years and old friends are taking care of it for me. You'll love it. We'll raise children there. Our children will learn all the goodness we can teach them."
The shadow under the door moved again, away from the door, no sounds of the movement coming to them.
Dalpe, as quiet as those in the next room, was out the rear window, onto the small adjoining roof, and dropped to the ground nearly as silent. In moments he was out on the trail, his mind clicking away on the plans he was inventing on the move. He was well set up a few hours later when he heard a rider in the darkness coming from town and knew it was the man from the next room in the saloon, on the horse he had seen at the saloon rail. Still in darkness of a sort, partial dawn but minutes away, he saw the informant dip into a crevice and go out of sight.
Patient, knowing enough to wait on reactions, he knew they'd take positions before the dawn flash. In a short time five men came through the crevice and took positions down in front of him as he flattened himself on a rock almost as big as a cabin, giving him a full view of all the desperadoes, which included McNerly giving out orders in a lowered but distinctive voice.
"Make sure your horses are quiet and out of sight back there and get down in position, then we'll nab the damned mouthy sheriff and send him back strapped onto his own horse. That'll fix him for good, that and a few holes in him, but I'm going to do the shooting when we got him saddled for good on his mount." With a wild glee he added, "That'll be a sight won't be seen in Wolfhead for a long time to come, and maybe never again."
Flinging his fist overhead in a presumption of a final victory, he positioned his men in different places ... but each one of them, including his own final position, was directly below Dalpe, holding his position motionless, his voice still, and his weapons cocked ... a repeating rifle and both pistols. He was alert to each one of the gang, their casual looks around the area as if the task ahead of them was so easy, a sure thing, yet needed some iota of assurance. All of them were, at their core, cowards of one sort or another, thought Dalpe, as he looked onto their deployment and inborn nervousness virtually expressed in their numbers against one man of the law. It was one more story in his life as a lawman, but it all might boil down to how good he was with a gun; it was usually the case and a sheriff or lawman with a bad shot, poor aim, less than best of plans, most likely would not only be a short time on the job but a shut a short life with the badge, and he was bounden to get Bethany out of this life and into a new one.
Both of them needed the move.
McNerly, with another shout full of excitement, contemplation and expectant good luck, broke up his deepest of thoughts; "It won't be long now, boys, so keep your ears and eyes open. He'll be along soon, but I'll take the first shot and you better remember. And that's an order."
The arrogance running through McNerly's voice, cutting knifelike into his words, distrustful of his own crowd, sat well on Dalpe. Somehow he managed to interpret a sense of it beforehand, enabling him to set his own plans into motion when the right time came. He was sure he could get off a good dozen shots even before they could draw a bead on him; it would likely be all he needed. Dead sure of it, he was.
The first shot hit him in the left arm, a grazing wound, not in the fat of the arm, and made him dive for cover behind a pair of stones on the trail, as if a thousand years earlier they had been rolled here for his protection from secondary shots, and a fusillade from two directions. It was evident he was caught in a cross fire from at least half a dozen rifles, the wind carrying the sounds like a smoky engine through a mountain tunnel. When that wind almost took of his hat in a sudden blast, he figured mother nature was still with him regardless of the wound. The bleeding was irregular and would need no tourniquet to abate the flow.
It was on the wind, rather than the second fusillade of shots, that he concentrated, and when the third set of shots came, he decided on a reaction. A twist of dry grass came quickly to his hand from its gathering place between the two rocks, and to it he struck a match, felt it puff its flame with an instant energy and tossed it out beside one of the rocks. The wind hurried the flames in a quick rush and the bright orange and red flames cast its dread out onto the wind-blown prairie.
The sets of curses were nearly audible, and he could imagine the threat the flames had ignited and the fears caught loose on the open grass, dry as good tinder, the gangs' mounts first to react.
Another gust of wind leapt up behind him as if it tried to catch the slim arc of the first flame.
Dalpe first heard an audible curse, then the noise of a horse in panic, an order to "hold", and the disregard that came with scurried shadows in the false dawn now brighter with leaping flames.
He mounted his horse, dashed away to the west and the first break in the rushing wall of flames. Ahead of him he saw half a dozen horses heading for the break in the bright wall of fire, a patch of darkness in a wadi, Charmer's Stream beyond it where some women of the town washed their clothes ... among other things.
He waited for the gang members, who arrived on foot huffing and puffing, stumbling along one by one. One shot into their midst followed by an order to toss their guns and gun belts aside created more curses, but was also accompanied by a flurry of tossed guns onto grass not yet ignited, though the wall of flames was stretching, reaching.
Dalpe ordered all of them, including McNerly, to flatten themselves on the ground at the side of the stream. "Put your hands behind your back and the first one who refuses to do it will get shot in the legs and he can drag his own self to the doc in town."
In turn, gun in hand, he slipped a knotted noose about each pair of clasped hands and told them, "The sooner you get going toward town, the farther away from the fire we'll all get ... and away from any bullets not yet uncounted." Even that said, he had not yet laughed, not at ineptness, not at a ludicrous sight rarely seen in the whole of the west.
At that moment, from behind them, two shots rang out in succession. McNerly said, "That's the rest of the gang coming and you better light out of here, Sheriff, or they'll show you a few new things on their own."
Dalpe didn't laugh at McNerly at that statement, but simply said, "Those shots are from your own guns caught in the fire back there behind us. I don't know which way they landed when you threw them away, but I figure there's four more shots that might come this way, four or more, figuring you gents might have shot a fair share of bullets at me. Unlucky then, maybe lucky or unlucky now, but I'd still hurry if I was in the pickle you gents are in. Marksmanship apparently don't count a whole lot right now, not when prairie fire's at the triggers of your own guns."
They started moving off toward town without another word or curse, scrambling in a clotted, knotted group, the single rope serving to keep them in the ranks of the orderly.
Folks of Wilsonville still talk of the scene in town that long ago morning when a prairie fire lit up the early horizon before the flames died out at Charmer's Stream, and Lucien Dalpe, sheriff of repute, derring-do and smarts, came into town leading six attempted assassins to jail, all in a neat and orderly row, for their trial and eventual imprisonment in the territorial jail. Some of those same folks began calling him "The Sheriff of Knottingham."